Complete Guide to the Avalanche Lake Hike in Glacier National Park

Nestled on the west side of Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful hikes in the country: Avalanche Lake, sitting pretty at an elevation of 3,905 feet.

This Montana park draws over two million visitors a year, most of them being hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Avalanche Lake is known for its impressive beauty and is rated one of the top attractions in the whole park. It’s a must-see when you are visiting Glacier National Park.

Keep reading to find out what you need to know about the Avalanche Lake hike before you go!

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PLANNING YOUR AVALANCHE LAKE HIKE AT-A-GLANCE:

Mileage: 5.9 miles roundtrip

Elevation Gain: 757 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Getting Around: Most poeple who travel to Glacier National Park use a car, whether that's their own personal car or a rental from a nearby airport. There is also a shuttle that stops at Avalanche, you can read more here.

Gear: Be prepared for all manner of weather on this hike! You'll want layers that can adjust to variable temperatures, waterproof layers (like this rain jacket), proper hiking boots (I love my Ahnu boots), and you'll probably want some trekking poles to help you on the descent.

Need To Know: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed site. 

You also need a separate ticket to access Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is different than your general entry into Glacier National Park.

How To Get to Avalanche Lake

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

Note: Access to Avalanche Lake is only possible via Going-to-the-Sun Road via the West Entrance of the park, which requires a separate ticket to enter.

Once you enter the park, you will drive towards Apgar Campground. You will begin to see signs for Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Make a right onto Going-to-the-Sun-Road and begin your drive towards the trailhead.

You will first pass Lake McDonald on your left. Once you get to the end of Lake McDonald, you will be a little over nine miles from the trailhead.

You will then see signs for Avalanche Lake. Keep in mind, the main parking area holds about ten cars and is normally full, unless you get lucky and see a hiker leaving the parking lot.

It is recommended to loop around and wait for someone to leave if there is no availability. Popular times are 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM, and 12:00 PM.

There is additional parking about a half-mile north of the trailhead where another five to ten cars can be parked.

You can walk the road back to the trailhead if you find a spot there. This will add mileage to your trip, but it is well worth it once you see the beauty of the lake.

Keep in mind the reservation system is currently in place at Glacier National Park. You will not be able to access this trailhead unless you have a Going-to-the-Sun-Road entry ticket.

History of Avalanche Lake

You are probably wondering how Avalanche Lake got its name… well, you’re looking at it!

The lake’s turquoise blue waters are due to the abundance of avalanches that fall down the Sperry Glacier, the mountain that sits behind the lake.

Avalanche Lake got its name in 1895 from Dr. Lyman Sperry, who is the namesake of Sperry Glacier. The glacier itself provides the water for the lake, from its constant avalanches.

Dr. Lyman was in awe of how many avalanches he witnessed during his short time visiting the lake — hence its name.

Avalanche Lake is also unique because it is one of the few lakes of its size that still has fish in it! It is rare to have fish in the area due to its size and elevation. Yellowstone cutthroat trout are the most popular fish found here in the lake.

The lake itself is a mile and a half long with a depth of 54 feet in some sections, which is an impressive depth for its relatively smaller size.

The Avalanche Lake Hike: Step by Step

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

Hiking to Avalanche Lake via the Trail of the Cedars is an unforgettable trek! The reason it is so distinctive is that it is two top-rated hikes in one.

First, you will begin your hike at the start of Trail of the Cedars, which is 0.9 miles long.

This hike starts you out in a wooded forest filled with green trees and mossy rocks. There is a wooden boardwalk that goes through the woodland which you will follow along.

Wildlife such as deer and moose walk the trail freely here and are commonly spotted. The sound of flowing rivers will surround you. Small cascading waterfalls line the trail.

You will even pass over a wooden bridge that provides astonishing views of the bright blue waterfalls!

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

This part of the hike is for all skill levels and is even wheelchair-friendly due to the boardwalk.

The trail lives up to its name: you will be surrounded by enormous cedar trees throughout your whole walk! The Trail of the Cedars hike is recommended on very sunny or hot days due to the amount of shade the cedars provide.

Surround yourself in the majestic wilderness while enjoying a much-needed hike in Glacier National Park that will bring you back to nature.

Halfway through the Trail of the Cedars is the start of the Avalanche Lake Trail. Avalanche Lake is two miles from Trail of the Cedars, with an additional two miles back.

This makes the hike in total around 5.9 miles with a 757-foot elevation gain, since you only do half of the Trail of Cedars’ length. This trail is rated as moderate and can be quite the workout, especially on hot summer days.

As soon as you follow the signs to the left on Trail of the Cedars, you will begin your ascent to Avalanche Lake.

The first part of the hike is completely uphill on a dirt trail. There are large wooden steps built into the trail in certain sections, making it an intense workout!

Stop and enjoy the views during this uphill battle whenever you need to catch your breath. You will be surrounded by icy blue rivers and vibrant green mossy trees. It is a very peaceful hike with background sounds of birds chirping and running water over the rocks!

Once you get about a mile and a half up, the trail begins to level out, making the last half mile pure excitement. You will continue your way through the trees until you spot a crystal blue image in the distance, peeking through the trees.

Another wooden boardwalk appears and you will follow that to the lake. The trees will part and the incredible Avalanche Lake will sit before you: a tranquil oasis of clear water merging with turquoise blue water.

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

The stunning mountains behind the lake showcase rivers flowing down the sides. A lush green forest fills the surrounding areas. When the sun hits just right, you can see the snow still sitting on the top of the peak. It’s an absolutely scenic and beautiful visual.

Most hikers spend their day here on the sandy beaches of Avalanche Lake. Visitors take off their shoes and soak their feet in the cold glacier water.

Some even become brave enough to swim in it, which is allowed but not commonly seen due to how cold the water is, even in the heart of the summer!

It is recommended to bring lunch and a small blanket to sit on, as this is a remarkable spot to have a bucket list picnic. Hikers lounge out on the beach and enjoy the views.

The hike can be crowded, but there is enough room for everyone to have their space at the beach.

If you want a less crowded area, continue on the boardwalk for ten minutes to reach the other side of the lake. This side is rumored to be just as beautiful with fewer people around!

If you are lucky enough, you can even find your own secluded beach on this side. A lot of people think that the main entrance is the only stop off of the lake, but the trail continues all the way around. I would recommend spending some time at both beaches for optimal views.

When you are ready, begin your descent back down another two miles following the same route you used earlier. The wooden steps are high in some parts, making it a bit strenuous on the knees.

If you have knee issues, plan on bringing a brace or using a walking stick for the hike back down.

Once you reach the bottom of Avalanche Lake Trailhead, you will continue on the Trail of the Cedars to the left. This will eventually loop the Trail of the Cedars trail and provide some new scenery.

The trail ends in half of a mile and brings you back out to the parking lot where you started.

Final Things to Know About the Avalanche Lake Hike

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

Due to its popularity, this hike to Avalanche Lake can get very crowded!

Just take your time and use hiker etiquette. If you’re descending the trail, step aside and give space to the people climbing up.

Also do not go off-trail and be respectful of the marked trail signs…. yes, even (and especially) for photos!

If you encounter wildlife, give them enough space and do not approach. Glacier National Park is grizzly bear country, so always be bear aware. You may want to bring bear spray or bear bells.

The hike itself can take anywhere from two to three hours depending on your level of fitness. Add on an additional two hours to spend at the lake. Plan for a total of five hours to fully enjoy this gorgeous day hike!

Remember to pack a delicious lunch and yummy snacks to eat at the top. Most importantly, bring extra water. It may be cooler at the lake with a slight breeze but your body needs additional water for those hot summer days.

If you don’t want to bring a lot of water, you may want to bring a filtering water bottle like the Grayl so you can fill up on delicious glacier water that is filtered so as to be safe to drink!

***

There is a reason why Glacier National Park has gained so much popularity over the past three years. Avalanche Lake shows the secret as to why: a mix between glaciers, waterfalls, and a lush forest makes the beauty surreal.

After driving all over this park, the Avalanche Lake hike took my breath away the most, becoming one of my favorite hikes of all time. 

If you have one day or five hours in this park, drop everything else and hike the famous Avalanche Lake: a view that is often only seen on computer screensavers will come to life before your eyes.

Lace up your hiking boots and visit this Montana hotspot — Avalanche Lake is waiting for you to visit!

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